WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education renewed Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky’s contract at its Feb. 26 meeting with a vote of 3-1. BOE member Irv Schwarzbaum was the only opposing vote and President Ron Charles abstained due to his wife’s employment with the district. Rutzky’s new contract takes effect July 1 and runs for three years until June 30, 2021.
The board had initially been slated to vote on this measure at its Feb. 12 meeting, but postponed the vote in order to consider the comments made by members of the public about Rutzky at that meeting.
At the Feb. 26 meeting, many residents, school district employees and community members came out again to speak to the board about renewing Rutzky’s contract. Though most asked the members to vote against it, there were some who spoke up in support of the superintendent.
“I wanted to clear a misnomer, and that misnomer is that Mr. Rutzky asked me to speak on his behalf,” Liberty Middle School music teacher Cynthia Rowberg said at the meeting. “He told me, ‘I will not ask anyone to speak on my behalf.’ This divisiveness is unhealthy for everyone, especially the children. I want people to work together. I know Mr. Rutzky is ready and willing to do that, because he already has.”
Kevin Alvine, the district’s supervisor of health and physical education, also spoke in support of renewing Rutzky’s contract.
“He’s demonstrated that he cares,” Alvine said at the meeting. “He expects you to give 100 percent when you come to work, and he gives it right back. He’s there when I need his help and helps the department get what we need. He and I have a good working relationship.”
Resident Anastasia Kinsella expressed her doubts about Rutzky being able to lead the district in the right direction, and how this could affect families with children who want to move to West Orange and attend the schools.
“You use words like ‘access’ but don’t follow through,” she said at the meeting. “This is affecting our real estate. You might be good at leading the sports teams, but I feel that that is all you are capable of. There should be accountability.”
Elizabeth Redwine, another resident and mother of children in the district, echoed Consala’s thoughts about Rutzky’s lack of leadership and stressed the importance of communication, a department in which she feels he has not done enough during his three years with the district.
“He has a serious issue with communication and that is important to this job,” Redwine said. “I don’t think he should get another chance. Part of that problem is the teacher intimidation. They are afraid to speak up. This isn’t the way to run a school system.”
Several people read statements on behalf of anonymous teachers and district employees who did not want to speak themselves or have their names revealed for fear of retribution. A poll taken by the West Orange Education Association in early February was cited several times. It showed that of 401 people surveyed, 76.1 percent said they did not feel that Rutzky is moving the district in the right direction. Four hundred people were asked if they felt the superintendent demonstrates respect for the district’s staff, and 82 percent answered no.
Roosevelt Middle School Principal Lionel Hush expressed his support for Rutzky as well as his frustration at the way the public comment portion of the meeting was going.
“I’ve never been more embarrassed by what I’ve seen over the last few months,” Hush said. “How do we expect to teach our children to stand up for what’s right when we act like this? There is a way to do this without character assassination.”
Katie Witzig, a West Orange resident and parent of an elementary school child, also articulated her disappointment in the way some residents spoke at the meeting.
“We need to move forward no matter what happens, regardless of my opinion,” Witzig said. “I’m so frustrated as to how everyone is treating each other. We are all part of one community.”
BOE member Ken Alper said that while some programs that have been started in the district under Rutzky have not been perfect or have not been completed, he believes it is important to move forward.
“I’m very concerned about the issues brought up tonight,” Alper said. “We do have communication issues that need to be fixed.
“The board will ask the best of the superintendent,” Alper continued. “We cannot afford to take a couple years off from these programs.”
Board member Sandra Mordecai gave Rutzky credit for working to make sure a special education department audit had been completed, as well as the opening of the Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center last fall.
“This has not been a last-minute decision,” Mordecai said, addressing comments that were made about the board voting on the contract at the 11th hour. “We have been talking about this since last fall. I believe in the vision.”
Schwarzbaum made few comments, but cited the economic and racial diversity of West Orange as a reason for the diversity of comments made at the meeting.
“With diversification comes a diversification of ideas,” he said. “Know that my decision will be based on the criteria, not emotions. Because I believe that emotional decisions are not good decisions.”
BOE Vice President Mark Robertson acknowledged that the district and the superintendent have room for improvement, but cited the progress that has been made in the last few years as a reason that he voted to renew Rutzky’s contract.
“We do have serious communication issues, there are problems in the special education department, and we need to do better,” Robertson said. “There is not one solution. There are also a lot of places where improvements have occurred, where innovations have occurred. All of your feelings are valid, but I have to vote on what I feel is right.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic